Head to the corner of Peace and West Streets in Raleigh and you'll find a jaunty ComedyWorx logo on an unassuming brick storefront. "FUNNY & CLEAN," reads a sign on the window.
This theater is home to the improv troupe founded by Richard Gardner, a now-retired environmental engineer who has spent the last quarter-century producing comedy in Raleigh without ever performing himself. He'd always loved comedy, but never found a way to break in until 1989, when he took a vacation in Kansas City, Mo. and caught a show by ComedySportz, a short-form improv franchise based mainly in the Midwest. "Well, I could do that," Gardner thought.
Upon returning home to Raleigh, he immediately started scheming up ways to jumpstart the local comedy scene. Ads in area newspapers introduced him to interested locals. They held auditions, practiced in living rooms and put on shows in gymnasiums and parks. For six months, they were the featured entertainment at the now-shuttered New Yorker Restaurant, which Gardner remembers being "run by an Indian guy who sold 'genuine New York food' who was absolutely clueless as to what genuine New York food was."
Over the years, more than 600 performers have passed through the troupe's shows and training workshops. They include Bryan Cronk, who's been with ComedyWorx for most of its existence, Anthony King, a former Upright Citizens Brigade artistic director based in Los Angeles, and Jim Woods, a performer at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam.
Currently, the 50-member performing troupe presents shows, offers workshops and runs corporate training sessions from its Peace Street home. Their weekdays are packed with team practices and classes. On weekends, patrons filter in for family-friendly early shows or more adult-oriented late-night sets. Those include all-female improv showcases and party-style games by veteran improvisers. The addition of more mature shows is an example of how ComedyWorx has evolved to serve its audience.
In fact, it took the organization more than a decade to adopt that name. It performed as ComedySportz until moving out of City Market in 2000, where a few performances in a food court had led to a long-term lease. That arrangement—the troupe's first paid gig—came about when Gardner wrote former mayor Smedes York, whose company managed City Market, a tongue-in-cheek letter and a goofy picture of his team. "I know you are very oriented toward community service," Gardner wrote, "and if you'd like to do the community a service, you'll get these people off the street."
The City Market residency paved the way for the company to grow, but running a small business and presenting live theater continued to require adaptability. For example, Gardner tried expanding into Chapel Hill with an outpost on Franklin Street for several years in the early '90s. "There were some problems with the site," Gardner remembers. "One of our performers accidentally busted a sprinkler and flooded the place, and the firemen couldn't find the valve to shut it off, so they wedged some wood in the sprinkler. We stayed for a couple years even after that."
Now, ComedyWorx's biggest challenge is attracting attention in a market increasingly saturated with options. "There are a lot of dance places and bars that didn't exist back when we started," Gardner says. "Also, there's hockey, which really empties this place."
Plus, there are other comedy organizations to compete with: Transactors Improv Company has been around since 1983, and Zach Ward started CHiPs in 1995 while he was still doing ComedySportz shows with Gardner. After a stint in Chicago, Ward moved back to the Triangle and started DSI Comedy (disclosure: I work for DSI and was associate producer of its last NC Comedy Arts Festival).
"At the time, most people really didn't know what improv was," Transactors director Greg Hohn says of the local improv scene in the late '80s. "In Chapel Hill, we were the only improv group around, and that's so different from what's going on now."
What hasn't changed in 25 years is the sincere commitment of the ComedyWorx extended family. "I owe a lot of what makes me happy—a lot of what makes me who I am—to ComedyWorx," says Matt Cunningham of his years in the troupe. Now a lawyer, Cunningham describes improv as a "moment of absolute abandon and reckless commitment." He credits ComedyWorx with introducing him to his closest friends and his wife, and with providing a place for "talented people who would not otherwise have interest or access to a stage in the Triangle."
Likewise, Gardner is more apt to talk about the camaraderie of ComedyWorx and the larger beauty of improv than all the funny shows they've had through the years. "A quote I like," he says, "is that the Constitution gives you the right to pursue happiness, but catching it is your problem. We help people catch it here." It helps to know the basic tenets of improv to understand Gardner's earnestness. In improv, you say "yes" and see where it leads. It's a philosophy of supportive listening, not conflict or competition.
"ComedyWorx is a very accepting atmosphere," says Jenny Spencer, a longtime player whose parents started performing there when she was just 6. "People from so many different backgrounds come together and perform comedy, and you get such a great view of the world." Now working in research and development at N.C. State's College of Veterinary Medicine, Spencer credits improv with making her stronger at presentations and team building.
The fellowship behind the scenes comes through on stage. The best improv shows resemble people who like each other inviting you to their party—a unique offering in an entertainment landscape of loud bands and provocative standups. "It is an interactive entertainment that's different every time you come," says Cronk. "From a historical perspective, we've grown up with the area and provide more than when we started off—something that's important as an alternative to a movie or an expensive concert."
With the fabric of Raleigh always evolving, why ComedyWorx has persisted seems like a big question. But Gardner isn't looking to make it big; he's just passionate about getting people involved, which makes ComedyWorx's mission simple: "We've brought happiness to tens of thousands of people over 25 years."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Worx in progress."